You Can Separate Law Library Space and Information

Thirty years ago, the best place to find legal information – case, legislation, and the commentary that supports it – was to go to a law library.  You’d find them in the courthouses, at universities, and lawyers had them on hand in their offices.

Then the Web happened.

Libraries of all kinds, public or law or whatever, experienced the same shift.  Information could be reached outside the library.  Researchers came in for different things, different reasons.  We have seen some very creative reactions to that shift, whether it’s information and learning commons, maker spaces, or coffee shops.

There are corners of the law library world where there still seems to be resistance to these changes.  The reaction to the announcement that the University of Saskatchewan was going to make changes to its law library and other branches is a good example.   We need to be able to see how separating information and space doesn’t mean a diminution in library services.

Changing Space and Information

The University of Saskatchewan libraries – centralized like many Canadian academic systems, so that the law library is a branch and not a standalone entity – are already using their space creatively.  News reports recounted that, as part of a campus-wide transformation, 4 libraries would be “closed”, including the law library.

Cue the torches and mobs.

Every law library is an access point to information.  Increasingly, the law is digital.  We keep as many current print books as we can afford to supplement what’s online.  But most law libraries have other purposes.   Court law libraries are often used for networking with other lawyers or meeting with clients, even as a hub for continuing education.  Academic libraries are shared spaces for students to study or visit with peers.

I don’t know what’s in the University of Saskatchewan’s TransformUS project nor what it says about the law library (§6, like the rest of the action plan, is password protected).  But there have been some comments by both the law school dean and the acting libraries dean that would seem to clarify that:

In other words, it doesn’t sound like they are closing the library to me.  There will continue to be space for students to study and a collection for faculty and students to use.   That doesn’t stop reactions from people who don’t appear to have any factual understanding of what’s happening.

Better Space

Most of the space designed for law libraries that is older than 15 or 20 years probably no longer makes sense for the delivery of legal information now.  I don’t know what the plans are at Saskatchewan but – and I’ve been there – their law library space isn’t optimized for researchers.  I expect you could go into any law library of a certain age and find ways to improve.

Large old law libraries are either adapting to modern times, using their space for research areas – tables, pods, study rooms – to match their technology, or they’re warehousing books because they have the space.  The amount of space needed to deliver legal information is substantially smaller than it was even a decade ago.  Law firm libraries are one of the best examples of continuing to deliver services with substantially smaller space.  Law libraries that designate themselves as repositories, for whatever reason, can still deliver services from a small footprint with offsite storage for the rarely used collection.

Courthouse law libraries are another example of space issues, albeit not size.  Courthouse security has increased and restricted access to the courthouse library collections.  The public need to go through security screenings and only authorized lawyers with a code or passcard can get access after hours.  The libraries may or may not be located in any area open to the public, or marked with the court’s wayfinding.  As the faculty in an academic environment know, law libraries can be extremely convenient – if you’ve got the right access.

I think there’s an excellent argument to shift the collections and services of all courthouse law libraries to the nearest public library.  The public library is often designed with longer hours, better parking, and may be a more inviting place for the public and others who don’t frequent the courthouse.

This is not to say the courthouse space doesn’t serve a purpose.  Just as when they are law students, a shared space for lawyers can have value.  The space which the courthouse law libraries use can continue to serve the local bar, or be deployed for broader services for courthouse visitors.

Is it less convenient for a lawyer to go to a public library rather than the courthouse?  Maybe.  My guess is that most lawyers are no more conveniently located to a courthouse than to a public library these days.  Law practices move with the clients, and many have moved to the suburbs where they may not have any need for a courthouse in their practice.

And faculty who now have to either call for a book or, to experience the serendipity of browsing, walk to a different building on campus?  I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy.  First, I’ve worked in academia and even 15 years ago, many of the faculty were largely electronic researchers.  Second, I’ve been in the University of Saskatchewan Law Library and it has a substantial amount of cruft in its collection that won’t be harmed in remote storage.  Yes, it may be less convenient than what was there.  If the end result is a less expensive library service and more usable space in what was (and probably will still be called) the law library, it’s a fair trade for a bit of extra shoe leather.

Information the Same, Regardless of Space

Canada lags the United States in electronic access to secondary legal information: texts, commentary, the like.  Unlike the U.S., Canadian law schools don’t pay for electronic access to Thomson Reuters Westlaw or LexisNexis Quicklaw.  It’s a fair statement that Canadian law libraries have more texts that need to have a shelf to sit on.

In most cases, though, we are no longer talking a whole library full.  Most North American law books can go into remote storage.  And although it’s used sometimes in a derogatory way, a so-called practice collection and a reserve collection of targeted titles can answer most of the fundamental needs for the average academic or courthouse law library.

Here’s the thing.  Any library system really only needs one location.  Branches are nice, because they allow a library to position services and content closer to researchers.  But they’re not necessary.  Telephone, chat and e-mail reference, embedded librarians, electronic databases, e-books, electronic document delivery, all of these are modern attributes for law libraries.  Physical books can be delivered to faculty or lawyers on a different floor or across the province or country.

The number or type of library locations doesn’t change the information.  The only things that change – and that librarians are hyper sensitive to due to our customer service focus – is the access.  Until all information is free, we need to make choices that balance the cost of having access to the information to how convenient we are able to make the information.   And law libraries are expensive propositions.

I totally get the negative reaction the change announced in Saskatchewan has drawn.  We sometimes point at the books instead of the real things that we fear will change:  our library (or law school) reputation, our personal convenience and access, our ability to meet our friends and peers in a quiet space.

If you were to list the elements of a library and its services and collection and could parcel them out – to remote storage, to the student, faculty, lawyer’s office or home, and to the physical space – there are creative new options for the delivery of legal information that don’t rely on them all being in one designated space.  Change is already here and there’s no reason we can’t embrace it while still delivering affordable access to information in as convenient a manner as possible.

It looks like that means centralizing service in Saskatchewan, and re-utilizing space in different ways.  To call it a library closure is to hold onto outdated modes of legal information delivery.

A Final Note on Saskatchewan

A few years back, I was invited to come out to the University and meet with the library administration and people in the law school community.  There were clearly a lot of challenges, many of which surfaced even while people described how important the space was to them.  I wasn’t involved in the TransformUS project but from what little I understand and based on my observations then, it sounds like a positive change for the law school.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.